In the classic writing of American political thought, Federalist 10, James Madison argued that the new constitutional republic would “break and control the violence of faction.”
And by a faction, Madison meant “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Madison believed that factions could arise from “different opinions concerning religion, concerning government,” but that all factions, including the most prevalent kind of faction of “those who hold and those who are without property,” are “sown in the nature of man.”
With the all-consuming debate over funding the government, Madison would be pleased to see that his definition of factions still lives in our republic today.
Normally in our discourse on factionalism in our political system, we talk about the “tyranny of the majority” overriding and trampling on the rights of the minority.
But what appears to be happening now seems more like the tyranny of the minority.
In the waning hours of the budget battle, it appeared that about 30 House Republicans were the core source of the battle over whether to keep attacking Obamacare, and many of them align themselves with the Tea Party.
Rising from their outrage over the 2009 passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has asserted its power over the GOP, both within Congress and the national party. A study of the Tea Party’s influence within the GOP found that anywhere from 45 to 55% of the GOP were Tea Party supporters, and that 95% of Tea Party Republicans took the most conservative view on repealing Obamacare, a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act.
And while “repealing Obamacare” was the second-most important priority for Tea Party Republicans, only 2% of non-Tea Party Republicans said it was a top priority for them.
One of the most critical findings of this study, however, is that “Tea Party supporters are not just a faction within the Republican Party: They are the majority faction within the party, particularly among active Republicans.”
This finding was also in a Pew Research Center poll that found a majority of GOP primary voters who always vote in primaries agree with the Tea Party faction.
Another Pew Research Center poll found that “50% of Republicans and Republican leaners who agree with the Tea Party say they are angry at the government, compared with just 27% of non-Tea Party Republicans.”
This anger has influenced the approach taken with the government shutdown: a majority of Republicans in the CNN/ORC poll supported shutting down the government; in a Pew poll, 71% of Republicans who identify with the Tea Party agree with the idea of standing by principles, “even if the government shuts down.”
But it appears that the Tea Party faction may be losing its steam of approval: in a CNN/ORC poll, only 31% of respondents view the faction favorably, while in a Gallup poll, only 22% identify themselves as a supporter of the Tea Party.
Madison, in Federalist 10, argued that the “complaints are everywhere heard … that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
If Madison revisited his own work today, he might have to concede that controlling a minority may be just as difficult to control as the majority.